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Repenser les limites : l’architecture à travers l’espace, le temps et les disciplines

Alice Thomine-Berrada
Barry Bergdol

Architecture, sciences, sciences humaines


David Van Zanten

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1In the case of the first two papers of this session—one depicting architecture as being conceptualized in terms of another art (that of rhetoric: Pauwels), the other architecture as the concretization of legal relationships (Carvais and Van der Vijver)—one realizes how thoroughly building is embedded in the broader span of practices of human culture, although in the first case the construction is a voluntary one—architecture might just as well be conceptualized as parallel to painting, for example, as in the case of Rietveld, or sculpture, as in the case of Frank Gehry—while the second is one of social necessity—it is only in the abstract that everyday architecture can escape from a tight grid of legal restrictions. The papers of Pinon and Magalahaes Rocha complicated this model of chosen or imposed transgression, the first questioning how our discipline has framed itself historiographically, the second drawing a parallel with a specific instance, that of the scientist/political activist John Desmond Bernal, who insisted on the subjectivity of technical “truth” all the while practicing important science. The last paper, Kenley’s, was especially specific, focusing on a single instance from the critical writing of the late Reyner Banham, and exploring the implications of modernism’s dearly-held illusion that there might exist a “machine esthetic”—that technique and art had common ground—that here a boundary need not exist. In this case, Banham traced the extra-architectural links operative to show how architecture is unique, introducing his wonderful simile of a building being like a tree, for long use; a machine (for example, an automobile on the consumer market) like a fruit, for short use, and for that reason vivid in design. Like Pinon and Magalahaes Roche, Kenley argues how deceptive and contingent extra-architectural crossovers may be. This folds back on Pauwels paper—yes, an architect can try to be a rhetor but will the result be convincing?—and on to Carvais and Van der Vijver—if architecture isn’t just design, then the community rightly makes it part of its concrete infrastructure—the social equivalent of Banham’s immemorial tree may be a code of laws.

2From the standpoint of a traditional art history text, these papers are frustratingly heterogeneous—but from that of the more recent model of the urban history text, they make refreshing sense. Building is a very complex activity which draws on many concerns to achieve a span of consistencies. To write its history is to write an array of distinct, parallel histories—and to relate them. A conference session is not a book, however, and in this context such heterogeneous contributions as these are just what is needed, as long as some work of relation becomes possible. In the end such extra-architectural links and parallels serve less to diminish architecture down to a mere part of a larger whole, than to bring out the various aspects of its broader character, often quite subjectively as in the case of the construct “machine esthetic.” From this standpoint, the texts we heard presented began from the architects seeking a model within which to elaborate their ideas and the community seeking to discipline it through law, followed by speculation—like the blind men exploring an elephant—about how such multiple realms presented themselves to subjects caught up in them. Finally, we were presented with an example of an observer, Banham, glimpsing the profound tentativeness of this whole enterprise to begin with.

© Publications de l’Institut national d’histoire de l’art, 2005

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